What skills will set you apart in the age of automation?

Robots may be able to beat us at chess, but they still have trouble when it comes to soft skills — making sense of human behavior.

What skills will set you apart in the age of automation?

DAVID EPSTEIN: In a rapidly changing work world it's important to be a constant learner, to be able to change and evolve your skills. Especially when we're facing automation of certain types of work. So, I want you to think about a spectrum of work that gets automated. On one part of the spectrum is chess. Chess is based on rules. It's very clear. Patterns repeat. That is a great situation for a computer. Computers are really good at patterns which is why they made exponential progress in chess and now the chess app on your iPhone can beat the best human chess player in the world.

In the middle of the spectrum maybe think about self-driving cars. Self-driving cars we've made great progress. There are rules of the road so they're regular repeating patterns, but there are some significant challenges that remain. And on the far end of the spectrum we have something like say cancer research where IBM's Watson had a lot of hype but actually was underperformed at hype in such a way that when I talk to AI researchers some of them were worried that it would damage the reputation of AI in health research going forward. As one oncologist I talked to put it, the reason Watson destroyed at Jeopardy but failed in cancer research was because we know the answers to Jeopardy. So if you want to have skills that continue to be valuable you have to keep learning things and you have to be in some of these more amorphous fields almost.

So, I want to share one example of how this has played out in the past. When ATMs were created the thought was that this would do away with bank tellers for good, right. Bank tellers did repetitive transactions and so you wouldn't need them anymore. But, in fact, as more ATMS came online there were more jobs for bank tellers. What happened was that each branch needed fewer tellers so each branch of a bank became cheaper and banks opened more branches so there were more tellers. But the job of teller changed completely. It was no longer someone who could do repetitive transactions. Rather, they had to learn marketing skills and customer service and have this much wider array of broad skills because those broader skills and integrating different types of information are what's difficult for computers.

The psychologist Robin Hogarth characterized domains of learning as going from the kind to the wicked. Kind learning environments were areas where patterns repeated. There was a wealth of previous data. There were clear rules and feedback was apparent. And in those kinds of areas like chess computers really thrive. On the other end of the spectrum are wicked environments where not all the information is clear. Rules don't necessarily repeat. People aren't waiting for each other to take turns. Feedback may be delayed. If you get it at all it may be inaccurate. And human behavior is involved. Those are areas where computers don't do as well. They require a lot of the so-called soft skills. How to deal with human behavior and how to adjust to things that are changing in real time and interpret signals that are very difficult to quantify. That's an area that's very, very difficult for computers but humans have a huge advantage. So, those kinds of soft skills are really important and will be for a long time to come.

  • In a rapidly changing work world it's critical to continue evolving your skills — this is especially true as automation's presence in the workforce increases.
  • Robots are good at working off of knowledge that we already know, however, they aren't that great when it comes to developing original ideas.
  • Though robots are good at jobs founded on patterns and data points, they currently don't excel when it comes to soft skills — that is, they have difficulty dealing with human behavior. On our end, soft skills help us make sense of chaotic environments where the dynamic human element is constantly in play.

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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